Technology writers have likened the internet to the Wild West (it's an analogy I am not particularly fond of, for reasons that will become clear soon enough, but for the moment I will just run with it).
Cyberspace, the argument goes, is a new and effectively boundless frontier that is open for expansion. The new prospectors are starting dot-coms rather than ranching cattle or panning for gold, but, much like their historical counterparts they are out to stake their claims and (hopefully) strike it rich.
This gold rush mentality is pitted against the absence of law. Just as law enforcement was a sketchy proposition in the Old West, there are few laws governing conduct in the virtual realm, and it is unclear who has the power -- or, more often, the capability -- to enforce those laws in the first place.
If the internet is the Wild West, then college campuses like Dartmouth must be the virtual equivalents of Dodge City. A college is a place populated by transients (read: students) who have lots of time on their hands, a great familiarity with technology, access to large (and largely anonymous) computer networks and an apparent penchant (or passion, even) for stealing anything and everything that isn't nailed down. So it should come as no surprise that students have become twenty-first century rustlers, that colleges and universities are epicenters of copyright infringement.
Internet piracy has powerful enemies, though. Enemies that, if recent events are any guide, have also bought into the Wild West analogy, and have decided to try a little good, old vigilantism by taking the law into their own hands.
For example, music giant Sony BMG was pilloried in the press last week after it was revealed that the company's music CDs contained a secret anti-piracy program. Users who ran the CDs on a Microsoft Windows personal computer had the software installed -- without knowing it -- on their computers. According to CNN.com, the Sony BMG program inserts itself "directly into the 'roots' of [computer] systems with rootkit software, which cloaks all associated files and is dangerous to remove." From its hidden base, the software tracks what a user does with the music files and may block attempts to copy or move the data.
Internet safety watchdogs have rightly criticized Sony for sneaking spyware onto the personal computers of its customers. While Sony's desire to protect its copyrights is understandable, that does not give the company the right to skulk about the hard drives of consumers (most of whom are not committing piracy in the first place) without due warning. The picture gets even worse now that it has been revealed that the Sony program contains security holes that viruses and Trojan horses can exploit to gain access to a PC.
Sony is not apologizing. The company claims, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that "the component is not malicious and does not compromise security." Sony did release a patch online, which computer users can download to "uncloak" its copy-protection software. Given that users will not know whether or not they need the patch -- after all, if the software is cloaked without it, they have no way of knowing if it is on their computers -- I am not too impressed by this step on Sony's part.
The problem for Sony -- and for other companies who might be thinking of following in Sony's vigilante footsteps " is that the internet is not the Wild West. The net may be a new frontier, and it may still be surrounded by unresolved legal questions, but it is not lawless. The music companies themselves, thanks to a very persistent and very expensive lobbying effort, have seen to it that there are plenty of laws to protect their intellectual property. Furthermore, their lawyers have launched well-publicized and, effective lawsuits against some of the internet's most egregious pirates. Clearly, enforcement, while difficult, is not impossible.
Given the legal and transparent remedies at their disposal, companies like Sony BMG cannot justify their new anti-piracy programs by claiming self-defense. Whether for good or ill, internet piracy is illegal and users who engage in it can be made to suffer the consequences of their choice to break the law. But those consequences should come in a courtroom, not from a spyware program that endangers the computers of people who have given the music industry no grounds for action against them.
Music companies have rights. But this is not the Wild West. This is a society that values the rule of law, and the rest of us also have the right to demand that the music industry make use of legal channels before it starts taking matters into its own hands.